TWO SUMMERS AGO our back porch was inundated with carpenter bees. Their damage was disheartening, and little could be done aside from trying to kill them one by one. I offered a singular prayer. It was simple really. I asked God for help. One month later a jar of nuthatches, an entire family of extended siblings, arrived.
They were a living picture.
Now nuthatches or brown creepers are not common in Oklahoma, especially in neighborhoods. This little covey, however, twittered away as they began to feast, hopping through the firewood pile first, eating the young black bees. I walked as close as I could to them and told them how glad I was that they had come, that they were sent by God as my helpers. [Yes, I talk to birds, trees, and lots of God’s creation in my yard.] The group then spiraled upside down through the pine trunks, taking care of the pine bark beetles too. Within ten days all the bees were gone and so were the eleven nuthatches.
Last summer a few bees returned, but I saw nary a nuthatch. I missed my friends and began to wonder if they would ever reappear. I swatted at bees with my broom instead.
This year, on the week of my wedding anniversary mind you, I was in the backyard in the heat of the afternoon looking for our cat Kiwi. I heard a single chirrup then another one a few yards away. As I peered into the trees, I saw them—two nuthatches. I moved back into the shade of the porch and watched. The smaller one, the female, was hunting along a tree trunk, but every now and then she chirped to the male who was deep in my magnolia bush. He echoed right back. Every time she moved she chirped to him as if she was sending both her location and an “all is well” signal. He always responded.
My face was wet in minutes. I just knew these two were part of the family that had traveled through my backyard before, and they had returned to build a nest and a family. My home was their home. But even more, they were a living picture, a picture of working together, a reminder on my anniversary week, a picture of God's love for me, and an answer to a simple prayer once again.
I taste a liquor never brewed –
From Tankards scooped in Pearl –
Not all the Frankfort Berries
Yield such an Alcohol!
Inebriate of air – am I –
And Debauchee of Dew –
Reeling – thro' endless summer days –
From inns of molten Blue –
When "Landlords" turn the drunken Bee
Out of the Foxglove's door –
When Butterflies – renounce their "drams" –
I shall but drink the more!
Till Seraphs swing their snowy Hats –
And Saints – to windows run –
To see the little Tippler
Leaning against the – Sun!
AS A POET, Emily Dickinson creates a buffet for the senses and the imagination in “I taste a liquor never brewed.” By her first implication, the reader knows that this poem does not refer to something natural, something “brewed” by man, but to the sense of something hard to define. This mysterious element combined with unusual imagery elicits a playful almost festive theme of the summer season.
Dickinson persistently uses drunken imagery in all its connotations as a metaphor for the exhilaration she enjoys outdoors in the summer. She first mentions that nothing can compare to this heady sensation, no other emotion can “yield such an alcohol.” The imagery continues as she next mentions she is drunk on the very air and summer dew, “reeling” all season long in the “inns” or taverns under the sky. Dickinson even relishes summer more than the insects that thrive then. Lines 9 through 12 show how the bee has had his fill of “drink” from the foxgloves, and the butterflies now “renounce their drams” and can’t drink or even desire another drop. Yet Dickinson exclaims she’ll keep drinking—consuming, absorbing, enjoying all creation.
So much of Dickinson’s description lies in tangible sensation.
First person point of view pervades these first three stanzas, and this is part of the power of this poem. In line 1, Dickinson tastes this “liquor” of summer. In line 5, she is the one who is drunk on air and dew, and in line 12, she shouts that when the bee and butterflies are done drinking, “I shall but drink the more!” Her point of view is just that, not a commentary or guide to how the reader should feel about summer, but an exclamation of her intense emotion in a most unusual metaphor.
The perspective of the final stanza shifts, however, as Dickinson describes angels and saints in heaven gazing down through their “snowy Hats” or clouds and “windows” at her. As narrators, they in turn term her a “Tippler,” someone who makes a habit of drinking. Interestingly, a tippler isn’t an extreme drinker or drunk but simply a regular and daily drinker. The angels and saints witness her “Leaning against the - Sun!” not overcome and leaning against a bar or wall in a tavern, but against the sun itself, the epitome of the season. Dickinson is the one regularly “drinking in” the sun
She remains wholly conjoined to the essence of summer.
So much of Dickinson’s description lies in tangible sensation, the taste of drink, or even physical movement, but not in color or sound. Yet the absence of these two senses does not diminish her apparent expression of heart-felt emotion. She remains wholly conjoined to the essence of summer.
originally posted 6/8/17
From the first moments when we meet Douglas Spaulding, we know his life is one of imagination and adventure. In Dandelion Wine, Doug is tantalized by the summer season, and his full-bodied experiences entice the most reticent reader to enter again into a season of discovery. One of the most notable elements of Bradbury’s fiction is this ability to depict the wonder and sometimes the harsh reality of childhood through experience and imagery.
We can relive our own childhood awakening through Douglas’s first summer moments. Riding in his Dad’s car through the countryside, Doug declares that Some days were good for tasting and some for touching. And some days were good for all the senses at once. This was that day for Doug where he literally became aware of every sight, sound, and taste about him in the woods.
I, too, have shared in some of those childhood experiences. I remember going on fishing trips with my father and big sister in the early Mississippi morning hours to a local pond or practically anywhere we could drive his 1971 Chevy truck under an hour’s time. Even at five or six years of age, I could bait my own hooks with crickets and worms. The problem was that I was easily distracted by the wonder of where we were. I could sit on a bank and doodle my bobber in the water for a time, but almost always, I would leave my pole and wander a dirt path or two, investigating for critters or anything I couldn’t catch in my own backyard.
Some days were good for tasting and some for touching. And some days were good for all the senses at once.
For me, the freedom to explore my little unknown habitat, even for a morning, was a treasure. I could sit still and listen to the wind in the pines, the jays and their squabbles, the plunk of bullfrogs for what seemed an infinitesimal day. I could close my eyes and just feel the aliveness around me, the breeze, the humid liquid air, the sense of a twig in my hand as I dug in the dirt. Like Doug, I could then open my eyes and know that absolutely everything was there. The world, like a great iris of an even more gigantic eye, which has also just opened and stretched out to encompass everything, stared back at him. It’s the utter sense of being fully awake and being wholly part of a place and moment in time.
Though Doug begins his summer declaring I want to feel all there is to feel, he soon discerns that time is slipping quickly by: The only way to keep things slow was to watch everything and do nothing. Through the experience of life and death in the town and their family, Doug and his brother realize that happy endings don’t always go with summer, but it is a part of awakening to life.
On one of those same summer fishing days, I remember my first experience with death, and it too, startled me. I had been fishing with a juicy worm in the hot sun without luck when I suddenly felt my bobber jerk deep. I hollered for my dad who ran to help me pull the fish in. It was a red snapping turtle instead, and it was huge to my small eyes. As fascinating as it was, it wouldn’t let go of my big worm even though my dad tried to get it to bite a stick instead. That was one aggressive turtle, and it wouldn’t let go of that line. My dad later said that the turtle had never swallowed the bait nor hook but was just plain ornery. Though I was fascinated by their tussle, my dad shouted at me to get back, then he tried again to get that turtle to grab the stick, and it did. As soon as it crunched, my dad whipped out his Bowie knife from his boot and cut off its head right where it had extended its neck. I was mortified and sickened, for I had caught many a tiny box turtle in our yard as a pet kept for weeks at a time, and I sure didn’t understand my dad’s reaction. I just sat down in the dirt and cried out of pure shock as my dad flung the parts in the lake.
Like Tom who saw a different part of his mother’s character one night at the ravine or like Doug who loses a friend to a move or as both as they lose neighbors and their own great-grandma to death, so many changes come at unexpected times, and something as pleasant as a summer day can devolve into horror and grief. The wonder and simple pleasures of summer then can not only be contagious at times as we revel in creation and experience, but also tempered by the realities of life and death.
originally posted 3/31/17
Ages ago I took a college course titled “History of the English Language.” In the principle text, Pyle and Algeo argue that language development makes us human. They begin with what we know—speech comes first then writing. We talk before we can write. In fact, there are spoken languages with no written form. In spoken language, inflection and stress provide intended meaning. Writing itself distinguishes meaning through its process, but it is useless without words.
Words are building blocks, units, ingredients, pieces of a sentence or thought puzzle. How else could we have the word worsdsmith, one who works with words just as a tradesman works with his piece of wood or iron?
But before it entered an English dictionary, the word word was known by the Greeks as logos. In pre-Socratic philosophy it was the principle governing the cosmos because it encapsulated human reasoning. The Sophists later saw it as the topics of rational argument or the arguments themselves. The Stoics viewed logos as nous—the active, material, rational principle of the cosmos that was identified with God. It was both the source of all activity and generation and the power of reason residing in the human soul. In Judaism, logos becomes the living, active word of God. It is creative power, and it is God’s medium of communication with the human race. In Christianity, logos becomes the creative word of God which is itself God incarnate in Jesus in John 1.
Words are building blocks, units, ingredients, pieces of a sentence or thought puzzle.
As I write this summer, I am ever conscious of how words are used, and not just mine. The writer of Ecclesiastes 3 might describe it this way—words are used to inspire fear, to bring wisdom, to bring joy, to show emotion, to display passions, to attack or defend, to bring comfort, to encourage, to belittle or tear down, to cause pain, to bring healing, to mend.
The inherent caution is there. Our words have life, and as writers, readers, and speakers, we share a responsibility. Let’s apply our hearts to instruction, our ears and the ears of our listeners to words of knowledge.
Like the beginning of a new year, the shift into summer can spur romantic notions and resolutions. There is something to the season change that causes reverie. Could it be that God has designed us this way?
During the sixth century, Gregory the Great of Italy writes that our conscious contemplation is critical to our Christian lifestyle. The contemplative life, according to Gregory, is to “hold fast with the whole mind” to our relationship with God, eagerly and even passionately to feel His presence. The contemplative is eternal because it continues after death and is “perfected” in heaven. To develop the contemplative then, we must begin by focusing on God, and not actions, as Mary did with Christ. Once we are centered on God, then we are able “to bear the weight of corruptible flesh with grief.” This implies a change in our mindset once we’ve begun the process. In a way, we grieve for heaven since we are not there because our fleshly nature weighs upon our spirits. Gregory terms it a “mental struggle” because “He [God] withers every carnal desire in us.” This step is a striving, a good and eager striving, to understand God. Yet Gregory does stipulate that the contemplative element follows the active portion. It must happen in that order.
Contemplation follows action.
Gregory defines the active life as literal—doing good works. He lists what believers should do such as “to give bread to the hungry, to teach the ignorant with the word of wisdom, to set aright the lost, to recall a proud neighbor” and others. It is more than productivity and more than influencing others—it is caring for those God has placed around us. This life is “laborious” and “fatiguing” yet the work must come before we can rest in His presence. He cites Jacob’s wife Leah as an example of labor and the active life because Jacob always returned to her, and she bore him sons. If we have labored well then, the active life continues by reproducing “many sons in the good work.”
This developing process, attaining the contemplative and active life, is also circular according to Gregory, for “the spirit frequently reverts from the contemplative to the active, so that the active life may be lived the more perfectly because the contemplative has kindled the mind.” One is dependent upon the other, and at the same time, holds great influence.
The active life and the contemplative life are intertwined . . .
Stewarding our relationship with God will show itself in our physical actions as our “inward love increases” and the “strength of the flesh undoubtedly declines.” If we are fully committed to living this intertwined life, then “when the quiet of the contemplative life prevails in the mind there is silence in Heaven because the noise of actions dies away from thought so that the spirit inclines to the secret inner ear,” a benefit that our souls should not forget (Psalm 103:2).
from Homilies on the Book of Ezekiel
I FEEL LIKE I'M ALWAYS READING with plenty more to read, but I don't think I would ever describe myself as a well-read person. I have a feeling I'm not the only one too. I like reading and learning, plain and simple.
I thought I'd share bits of my summer stack from last year. My stack is incomplete without my Kindle reads, but it's a fair representation. Here are my categories:
FAVORITE LIGHT READS.
Reality shows are fascinating things, but I'm not in one, nor would I want to be. Who would truly want to be at the mercy of a TV production team? You would have no control over how you appear or which version of you might appear on the screen thanks to the wonder of sound bites and clips without context.
How about a picture of a day in the life of a teacher instead? I'm not sure I'm a typical teacher. What does the word typical mean anyway?
I have a privileged position. I really do. The graduating class at our small high school has only sixteen seniors this year. Most years we have fewer than thirty. Last year, I chose to add to my normal parting gift of a heartfelt note and gave each senior a pocket size poetry book. Typical frugal educator that I am, I used my Barnes and Noble coupons every few weeks and eventually purchased enough of the same five books.
This year I started even earlier in the semester because I really wanted to give a meaningful volume that spoke to each student. And yes, that is quite the endeavor. Who wants to give something that will lay dust-ridden on a shelf or languish in a box of lost toys? Sorry, that’s the Island of Lost Toys.
I chose these for pure readability and simple pleasure, hoping that the beauty of word choice would shine, even in the event of an obscure line or two. I could share all sixteen book choices, but that might scare you away. Instead here is the array that just might fit as you consider presents for any type of graduate.
Weary at last with way-worn wandering
4. No worthy list can ignore nature, and this is a terrible thing because I enjoy so many nature poets. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Willa Cather, Percy Shelley. It is limitless and varied. Maybe I can include two twentieth century ones then? I would choose the newest 2017 Sterling Selected Poems of Robert Frost, illustrated edition for its keepsake quality. Thomas Nason’s woodcut engravings that have accompanied several Frost volumes in decades past are included in glossy full-page contrast. The pages long to be touched. One hundred poems feature Frost and his New England at their best. Secondly I am torn between Richard Wilbur and Wendell Berry, but alas Berry has published several smaller volumes, that is “approachable” volumes, for young readers. I chose A Small Porch, which contains his Sabbath poems from 2014 and 2015 plus an extended essay on nature—
The best of human work defers always to the in-forming beauty of Nature’s work . . . It is only the Christ-life, the life undying, given, received, again given, that completes our work.
5. And now for the Emilys, or is it Emmys? For Gothic verse, for sheer empathic skill in one so young, I enjoy the Everyman edition of Emily Bronte. Once again, it’s bite-sized and not as thick a tome as her complete poems. True, Bronte often deals in death and grief because it was the reality of the day, but that should not dissuade us or obscure her brighter moments. Consider "No Coward Soul Is Mine" and "Love and Friendship."
I trust these are helpful choices, and I especially would love to hear your gift suggestions.
Comment on my blog or message me through my Contact page, and let's share together!
My students can not get over how Ivan Ilych responded to the inherent compassion in his servant Gerasim. The class devolved into argument quickly— “Was it just the presence of Gerasim? Was it who he was?” or “Was it actually what he did for Ivan?” or “Had he never met a sincere person before?”
I think the difficulty lay in that most had already determined who they thought Ivan was—a shallow, purposeless man. Now he’s enfeebled by a wasting disease that isn’t diagnosable. And what’s worse, Ivan accidentally brought it on himself by bumping his side when hanging curtains in his house that resembled all the things people of a certain class have in order to resemble other people of that class. Yes, Ivan had always lived for lighthearted pleasure and propriety. Yes, he’s shallow, but not so superficial that he didn’t recognize goodness when he saw it.
The irony was clear to my class—a servant peasant is caregiver, not a family member. No other character in the novella is described as clearly either. The spotlight couldn’t be brighter. He says little, but his behavior tells all.
Gerasim was a clean, fresh peasant lad, grown stout on town food and always cheerful and bright . . . Gerasim with a firm light tread, his heavy boots emitting a pleasant smell of tar and fresh winter air, came in wearing a clean Hessian apron, the sleeves of his print shirt tucked up over his strong bare young arms; and refraining from looking at his sick master out of consideration for his feelings, and restraining the joy of life that beamed from his face, he went up to the commode.
Respectful, humble, compassionate, good. Surely he represents every virtue. Ivan continues to observe him and seems to see his own life more clearly in the light of Gerasim’s presence:
His mental sufferings were due to the fact that that night, as he looked at Gerasim’s sleepy, good-natured face with its prominent cheek-bones, the question suddenly occurred to him: ‘What if my whole life has been wrong?’
Now my class wonders if Gerasim is Christ in some way because his juxtaposed presence brings out truth. I ask in return “Does he have to be? Could he represent anyone or anything else?” After all, his character seems to disappear in the final chapters once Ivan begins to hear an inner voice. That alone may be key because my students wonder why Gerasim doesn’t talk through things with Ivan. Why didn’t Tolstoy use him more?
The most sincere response I heard was that Gerasim was a seed who brought light, comfort, joy, and even beauty—the perfect servant. Though there’s so much more to the full story and its spiritual meaning, Gerasim was just the beginning.
Maybe it does take the paradox of goodness in someone, moments when we witness or see a deep sincerity, hear a piercing truth. Moments when we weren’t looking at ourselves first. Moments when we really see.
When I first wrote about how to understand poetry in the fall, I heard from so many of you. Some shared suggestions and many more requested ideas. If you missed my first article, see On Teaching My Husband Poetry. Appreciating poetry begins with finding poetry you like, poems that resonate and delight. Though he unarguably had a tumultuous life, Percy Bysshe Shelley writes in an enjoyable and, I feel, understandable way. Don’t dismiss his work because of a few “thees” and “thys.” Read through it once, then twice, to get a feel.
One of the things I enjoy about Shelley’s descriptive poetry is that it is leading—he leads you to his thoughts. Poet notes. Unlike other Romantics who might get a bit lost in their creation and idealistic philosophy, Shelley is quite clear. The story goes that as he and his wife Mary, yes Mary Shelley of Frankenstein fame, were on an evening stroll in Italy in 1820, Mary commented on the evensong of the skylark, prompting Shelley’s ode.
In celebration of spring, let’s look at this popular poem together.
To a Skylark
So easy to hear and see and experience, And singing still dost soar, and soaring ever singest. This simple songbird is so like the Heavens he comes from that his notes are like arrows, sharp and pointed at our hearts. This expression of beauty, this skylark, is so unearthly that Shelley asks how we can know it is of the earth. What can we compare it to? He employs simple similes: a poet (himself?), a maiden, a glow-worm, a rose. Each appeals to a different perspective and physical sense.
I think Shelley aspired to be as skilled with words as the skylark was with song, an experiential song of pure beauty.
Shelley then returns to a direct tone of command. He wants to know from the skylark itself, Teach us, Sprite or Bird, What sweet thoughts are thine. What are you singing of? Shelley then imagines what the bird might see before he realizes that it cannot love like a human can. That—that is something it cannot sing of, the pain or annoyance of love gone wrong. Yet maybe that is why its song is so pure.
Shelley maintains our love on earth is all the more joyful, more deep even, than what the skylark sings of because we can experience sorrow and pain. Perhaps it is the job of the poet to reveal. Consider two parts: Like a Poet hidden / In the light of thought, / Singing hymns unbidden, / Till the world is wrought / To sympathy with hopes and fears it heeded not. And Thy skill to poet were. I think Shelley aspired to be as skilled with words as the skylark was with song, a song of pure beauty.
The British Library also features historical commentary on "To a Skylark."